Sweet Cups of Death from Issue 74
I would have liked to have been at the 1954 session of the Newfoundland House of Assembly when the pitcher plant, a carnivorous angiosperm, was chosen as the official flower of the province. I would have liked to have understood what “message” or “image” the lawmakers were trying to send or present. Was it a subtle warning to Canada, which Newfoundland had joined only five years before, to keep its federal claws at a respectful distance? Was it a rough bit of Newfoundland humor? An impish parody of the genteel pretensions being wafted from Ottawa across the Cabot Straits? A refusal by Newfoundlanders to “beautify” with a false image their harsh, rugged land and the hard facts of survival to which they had become inured over the centuries?
It was likely none of these, of course, or any other intended message or image. In a land where plastic flamingoes and Smurf cartoon figures are still placed in front yards with no trace of irony, the choice of an insect-eating swamp plant as the official provincial flower was probably no more than a recognition of the obvious. In a land where, during its short summer, a riot of glorious, colorful wildflowers thrives—wild iris, joepye-weed, rhodora, cow vetch, blue flag, harebell, lupin, goowitty, fireweed, orange hawkweed, and evening primrose, to mention just a few—the lowly and morbidly fascinating pitcher plant is the most characteristic and representative of all. Forced to survive in one of the most nutrient-poor environments, it does so by adapting to what it finds abundant there, namely, insect protein.
One sees things in nature for years, and then, for reasons too complex and braided to tease out, one finds oneself finally looking at them. I finally looked at Newfoundland pitcher plants one afternoon in August on the Great Northern Peninsula. I was exploring an old tractor path into the woods whose winding and mysterious disappearance into the aisles of dark spruce and fir had intrigued me. The path was used, in the winter, for hauling out wood, when the marshes, or “mishes,” were frozen solid. Now the path was soggy, and although I had on knee-high rubber boots, I was tempted to turn back when the track became more of a flooded ditch than a path, bordered with wild iris pods. But I persisted, perhaps a third of a mile in, until I came to a large open stretch of bog, flooded in sunlight and covered with thick mounds of sphagnum. The bog surface was islanded with clusters of pitcher plant blossoms on long narrow stems, like bonneted ladies huddled together in gossip.
Although it was still high summer, the bog was ablaze with autumnal colors. The whitish-green mounds of moss were brindled with scarlet. The whorls of the pitcher plant calyxes were dyed in purple-red, yellow, and deep green. Their rosettes of large, hooded, pitcher-shaped leaves were speckled and streaked with varicose veins and kidney spots—a vegetable abstract of old age. At the bottom of each pitcher leaf was a small pool of rainwater, mixed with sweet digestive juices produced by the plant. Each plant looked as if it had been carved of dull, polished wax, and from each rosette of leaves there rose a thick, short purple stalk, at the end of which nodded a single, greenish-red flower of five petals with a large, flattened pistil.
Surely the pitcher plant is one of the most alien-looking of all flowering plants, something we might have imagined growing on Mars, or in the nightmare soil of our more lurid imaginings. How do such subterranean colors flourish in sunlight? I stooped to examine a thick cluster of the plants. Nearly every hollow, hooded leaf-sheath had a small beetle, fly, or other insect floating in its seemingly benign, clear, slightly sweet cup of water. One cup I peered into contained a lovely, small white-winged, black-eyed moth that had apparently only just been trapped. It lay on the surface of the water, beating its delicate, still-dry wings and looking up at me with what seemed a restrained poignancy. I came here pursuing food, or sex, it seemed to say, and found death instead.
I pushed my finger into one of the few empty sheaths and felt the soft, dry, fine, down-pointing hairs lining the inside surface. They offered the gentlest of resistance as I withdrew it, a suggestion of those bamboo Chinese finger puzzles that intrigued me as a child. I have always been amused by the obviously euphemistic common names given to certain flowers by Victorian botanists. Lady’s Thumb, for instance, an herb of the buckwheat family, possesses swollen stem segments just below the leaf attachments that in form resemble the female clitoris. Even more obvious is the common woodland orchid, Pink Lady’s Slipper, or Moccasin Flower, whose blossom is not so much a floral mimicry of feminine footwear as it is a remark-ably accurate botanical counterpart of the vulva. Its large, semi-divided pink flower clearly suggests a woman’s swollen outer labia in a state of sexual arousal; the soft, curving platform leading to the stamens and pistils evokes the vagina’s vestibule; even the long, spindly, green sepals shading the blossom look like stylized pubic hair. The long tubular leaves of the pitcher plant bear a less visual resemblance to female genitalia than these other species, but they possess a stronger tactile one: the soft, cool, outer cowl; the short, stiff front sheath like the hard pubic bone; the moist, delicate, finely-haired tube leading to sweet liquor and small deaths.
Seen this way, the pitcher plant seems a highly appropriate choice as the province’s official flower. It teaches us that nature is like Newfoundland: we romanticize and euphemize it at our peril, for more often than not, even in its coolest vegetable form, it presents us with undisguised sex and mortality.